The salvo has come from the Media Development Authority. The MDA has, today, made the following announcement:
"From 1 June 2013, online news sites that report regularly on issues relating to Singapore and have significant reach among readers here will require an individual licence from the Media Development Authority (MDA). This will place them on a more consistent regulatory framework with traditional news platforms which are already individually licensed."
I did a quick check on the Government Gazette. There is no Gazette notification as yet on this. Under S.8 of the Broadcasting Act (cap 28), the MDA has the Authority to grant licences for broadcasting. Chances are, MDA will be invoking this statutory provision in regulating the first ten internet sites that they have identified. I don't see any subsidiary legislation yet. The targetted sites are:
From the list, it is quite clear that the only site that can be deemed to be independant of the government is YahooNews. The initial reaction on social network sites has been to conclude that the target of this initial licensing exercise is YahooNews. Of course, many of us are aware of the often critical views expressed on Yahoo. (In particular, posts by Andrew Loh on YahooNews could be quite irksome to the powers that be.) The other nine sites are unlikely to be bothered or significantly affected by the licensing requirement. It is obvious that YahooNews may have to start being mindful of that non-legal OB marker nonsense.
What is MDA's criteria for licensing? The only source right now for this is MDA's press statement:
"online news sites will be individually licensed if they (i) report an average of at least one article per week on Singapore’s news and current affairs over a period of two months, and (ii) are visited by at least 50,000 unique IP addresses from Singapore each month over a period of two months."
"A “Singapore news programme” is any programme (whether or not the programme is presenter-based and whether or not the programme is provided by a third party) containing any news, intelligence, report of occurrence, or any matter of public interest, about any social, economic, political, cultural, artistic, sporting, scientific or any other aspect of Singapore in any language (whether paid or free and whether at regular interval or otherwise) but does not include any programme produced by or on behalf of the Government."
What is the implication for the online news site if it is to be licensed?
1. The news site must not put out 'prohibited content' as defined under the Internet Code of Practice
2. Within 24 hours of being notified, the news site must take down an article found to be in breach of content standards.
3. The news site must put up a $50,000 performance bond that can be forfeited in the event of breach.
To be fair, at this stage, there is unlikely to be any adverse effect on YahooNews in terms of its reporting. The 'prohibited content' in the Internet Code of Practice is "material that is objectionable on the grounds of public interest, public morality, public order, public security, national harmony, or is otherwise prohibited by applicable Singapore laws." This is, arguably, broad enough to include news that is unflattering to the PAP government. In considering what is prohibited material, the MDA will be taking into account 7 factors. Five of the factors deal with content of a sexual nature. One deals with extreme violence or cruelty. The last factor is stated as follows:
"the material glorifies, incites or endorses ethnic, racial or religious hatred, strife or intolerance"
Thus far, I have not seen anything on YahooNews that is capable of crossing the red line in this regard. The only matter of concern is the fact that comments posted by readers could give rise to adverse action from MDA against the licensed site.
The one area that we should all be uncomfortable about is that the broad statutory mandate of the MDA under s.8 of the Broadcasting Act, raises the possibility of further tweaking and tightening of content restrictions. Moving forward, there is nothing to prevent MDA from prohibiting content that is deemed to be politically undesirable. There remains the possibility that other news sites might be on MDA's radar. The Online Citizen and Temasek Review Emeritus come to mind.
If either TOC or TRE has a reach of 50,000 (unique visitors) every month (over a 2 month period), they are likely to be subject to the licensing regime. Both sites churn out more than 1 article per week. So, it is really about their reach. It is not unlikely that the two sites have such a reach. Of course, bloggers like myself are nowhere near that figure. So, we can safely blog on.
If the tracks are laid carefully now, the state will have enough time to lay the groundwork for managing the content within these sites by the time the next General Elections come by. Prohibited content could be extended to include 'party political news', 'partisan reporting', 'opinion on election campaigning', etc. TOC or TRE could be licensed sites that could face financial penalties.
But, the internet is a monster that even our highly efficient surveillance state can't manage. Content could be provided from out of our jurisdiction. New sites can be started. Bloggers and online news sites can engage in assymetrical warfare and there is little that the state can do except for an outright clampdown. I don't think the present leadership of the PAP has any intention to go down the route of a total clampdown on alternative views. They seem to be going for more subtle techniques of content management.
Phase 1 of content management has started. But, it is unlikely to have a muzzling effect on alternative news sites and bloggers in general.